After decades belonging to galleries and exhibitions outside Vietnam, several works by famous Vietnamese painters have been returned to the country thanks to extraordinary efforts of a Vietnamese art collector, Nguyen Minh.
Nurturing a dream of creating an exhibition showcasing only artworks by successive student generations of the Indochina College of Fine Arts (L’École des Beaux-Arts d’Indochine), Minh has devoted his efforts, along with significant amounts of money, to move closer to his dream.
The artists, including Bui Xuan Phai, Le Pho, Vu Cao Dam, Mai Trung Thu, and Le Thi Luu, are known for having laid the first essential “tiles” for the development of Vietnamese modern art at the beginning of the 20th century.
Within only six months, from May to October, Minh attended several art auctions throughout the world to bid on Vietnamese artworks. His goal seemed increasingly successful when he won the bidding for six Vietnamese paintings at an auction in Hong Kong in October. Among those artworks were three by Le Pho, two by Vu Cao Dam, and one by Le Thi Luu.
“Despite my success in bidding on those six paintings, I still regret that I had to give up the biddings for other Vietnamese paintings. I couldn’t compete with some bidders, who offered very high prices for those,” Minh said.
Earlier in May, Minh also won the bidding for the silk paintings Maternite by Vu Cao Dam, and the Landscape with Fishing Boat by Nguyen Tuong Lan at an auction at the famous Christie’s in Hong Kong.
An outstanding item at the auction, the 1934 painting by Nguyen Tuong Lan had a starting price from 25,600 USD.
“It really was fierce bidding for me. I had to compete with another tough bidder, who showed great interest in the painting,” he said, without revealing the price he paid for the artwork.
In the same month, Minh won four other pieces by Vu Cao Dam. The paintings include the Gossip, Spring, Two Lovers and Lovers in a Landscape.
Created in 1964 when the artist moved to France, the four paintings not only depict Vietnamese landscape and people, but “they reflect the artist’s nostalgia”, Minh said.
According to the collector, it is a long and difficult journey before he can bring home a painting.
“Firstly, I have to find the clue to the Vietnamese paintings, which might belong to different exhibitions, galleries and auctioneers in Europe and the US,” said Minh.
“Once I learn about a painting, I just expected its owner to put it under hammer an auction, and then I would have a chance to fight for it. However, auction bidding is another tough fight, which requires solid strategies from insiders. In addition, in comparison with other international bidders, my financial budget is less well-off.”
Besides the cost for the painting, the bidder has to bear the taxes, plus other additional fees, including commissions for auctioneers, about 15-30 percent of the painting’s value, and transportation insurance, about 15-20 percent of the value of the painting.
The extremely complicated export-import procedure is another challenge.
At an auction at Christie’s in Hong Kong, Minh could not follow the bidding for the Rice Seller by master painter Nguyen Phan Chanh until the end.
“When a bidder paid 60,000 USD for this piece, I had to give up because that price was beyond my budget. The painting then was sold at 390,000 USD – a record price for a work by a Vietnamese painter,” he said.
However, Minh said he had mixed feelings at that time.
“I was very happy because a Vietnamese painting was sold with quite a high price, but at the same time, I was quite sad. The more expensive the painting is, the more difficult for Vietnamese collectors to bring them back to Vietnam.”
Continuing his tireless efforts, Minh travels to many other auctions.
In July, Minh won the bidding at an auction at Matsart Autioneer&Appraisers in Jerusalem, Israel, bringing home the Bouquet by Le Pho.
Subsequently, he brought back to Vietnam another painting by Le Pho, the Sunflower, from the American auctioneer Brunk Auctions and the Mère et enfant by Vu Cao Dam from the Susanin’s Auctions in the US.
Minh seems not to tire in his ability to bring back Vietnam’s expensive artworks.
In August, he won the bidding for the Lady with Flowers by Le Pho at the Borobudur Auction in Singapore, following his winning the oil-on-canvas La Recontre by Vu Cao Dam at the Leland Little Auction in the US in September.
Now, the collector expects his “dream” exhibition will open soon.
“Once I collect 10 paintings by Le Pho (I currently own six), 10 pieces by Vu Cao Dam (I now have eight), and some others by Le Thi Luu and Mai Trung Thu, I will introduce them to art lovers,” he said.